• Steven Heller

The Daily Heller: The Op-Ed is Op-Dead, R.I.P.

A surprising announcement published in The New York Times on April 27 was the crowning blow in a life saga that I call “the end of the world as I've known it.” At the bottom of the editorial page of theTimes appeared a boxed story titled “Why The New York Times is Retiring the term Op-Ed,” from which I quote the pertinent excerpt below. (Founded in 1970, “Op-Ed” originally referred to the page opposite the newspaper's editorial; it's not, as is often believed, a solely dedicated space for opposing editorial viewpoints, though it does feature them along with the paper's weekly and biweekly columnists.)

… It’s time to change the name. The reason is simple: In the digital world, in which millions of Times readers absorb the paper’s journalism online, there is no geographical “Op-Ed,” just as there is no geographical “Ed” for Op-Ed to be opposite to. It is a relic of an older age and an older print newspaper design.
So now, at age 50, the designation will be retired. Editorials will still be called editorials, but the articles written by outside writers will be known as “Guest Essays,” a title that will appear prominently above the headline.

Taken for granted, “Ed” has long been a constant presence. So, this is a timely evolution in nomenclature triggered by the sum of radical changes in the writing, reporting and delivery of journalism—news, opinion and the occasional melding of the two. And let's not forget art and photography (and even expressive typography).


For me, this “retirement” has symbolic implications. It further distances me from the place I called home for almost 33 years.


I was art director of the Op-Ed page for two-and-a-half years (c. 1973–75), during which time I worked on helping launch new sections, and ultimately spent nearly three decades as art director for the Book Review. When hired, working for the Times, and especially the Op-Ed page, was the top, if only, job I wanted. At 24 years old I was appointed by Louis Silverstein, chief art director of the entire Times company (later he was elevated to the first assistant managing editor for design and the first design director to have his name on the masthead). Under his direction the paper revolutionized the news and feature presentation of the daily and Sunday editions. To say getting this job remains my greatest triumph is an understatement. As terrified as I was to work at the most prestigious newspaper in the world, the indescribable feeling that this inadequately self-taught novice had reached the zenith, remains a singularly miraculous achievement.


Which is one reason why I mourn the passage of the “Old Gray Lady's” arguably most visionary and influential editorial concept—the Op-Ed page.


Being nimble and changing with the times is what keeps the Times on its toes and at the pinnacle of modern media outlets. Sections, columns, editors and staff come and go. I came, I stayed, I left. But “retiring” the Op-Ed label so viscerally marks the inevitable passage of time and, thereby, my own place in the continuum of the paper. It feels a bit like demolishing my childhood home.


I cannot argue with the change; history demands it. The Op-Ed page made history 50 years ago for not just coining a term that was adopted by newspapers around the world, but was the source of inspired, inspiring and controversial opinion and criticism covering a broad range of issues. That is why I was so privileged and proud to have worked on it.


My relationship with the page began when friends of mine joined its enviable stable of artists. It had become the most impressive outlet for conceptual illustration and visual commentary before I arrived. My goal was to imbue it with a shred of my own art directorial personality. More important, however, I sought to maintain its visual reputation and enhance the respect for its contributors. The page not only raised the visibility of many astute artists, it laid the groundwork for new approaches to political symbolism and metaphor, expression and storytelling in art and design. All its art directors played roles in building a significant outlet for strong illustration. (For more about that, I wrote and narrated a history of Op-Ed art to celebrate the page's 40th anniversary here.)


To help recall the old Op-Ed, I've selected a few, though not necessarily the best, copies I could find of the over 800 pages that I art directed and designed, and provided a few words, as well.

The page allowed me opportunities to use illustrators in playful ways. These seven drawings of the common household pet were imagined by seven different cartoonists/illustrators.
Ralph Steadman was already illustrating for the page when I arrived. It was a thrill to work closely with him for two reasons: his wit and courage. He was not afraid to take graphic liberties that were often biting and challenging to the eye.
Every Christmas I was given a gift. I could use any illustrator with standalone art. Of course, I would always select one of my heroes. In this instance, Maurice Sendak.
When budgets were tight, I went into my deep files of historical art. For this story on the famous Communist Chinese foreign minister Chou En-lai, I found original Cultural Revolution paper-cut propaganda scenes.
I wanted to be an illustrator and cartoonist but I did not have the chops. Yet occasionally, I'd assign myself one to do. This is one of the more successful, especially complemented by the headlines.
Ralph Steadman and many other illustrators did work on their own. I would pair them with articles. This, however, was done specifically for an article critical of the current state of religion by a leading theologian and religious scholar. The drawing, which complimented the article perfectly, made it past the Op-Ed editors and into proof stage, then was rejected by the editorial page editor, who believed it would insult our Catholic readers. "But he's Episcopalian," I argued in jest. It was eventually used with a different article that presumably would not cause offense to the sensitive reader.

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